When people feel their “mega-identity” challenged, they get mega-upset. Increasingly, Washington politics—and also Albany, Madison, and Tallahassee politics—have been reduced to “us” versus “them,” that most basic (and dangerous) of human dynamics. As Mason puts it, “We have more self-esteem real estate to protect as our identities are linked together.”
Mason draws on the work of Henri Tajfel, a Polish-born psychologist who taught at Oxford in the nineteen-sixties. (Tajfel, a Jew, was attending the Sorbonne when the Second World War broke out; he fought in the French Army, spent five years as a German P.O.W., and returned home to learn that most of his family had been killed.) In a series of now famous experiments, Tajfel divided participants into meaningless groups. In one instance, participants were told that they had been sorted according to whether they’d over- or under-estimated the number of dots on a screen; in another, they were told that their group assignments had been entirely random. They immediately began to favor members of their own group. When Tajfel asked them to allocate money to the other participants, they consistently gave less to those in the other group. This happened even when they were told that, if they handed out the money evenly, everyone would get more. Given a choice between maximizing the benefits to both groups and depriving both groups but depriving “them” of more, participants chose the latter. “It is the winning that seems more important,” Tajfel noted.
Trump, it seems safe to say, never read Tajfel’s work. But he seems to have intuitively grasped it. During the 2016 campaign, Mason notes, he frequently changed his position on matters of policy. The one thing he never wavered on was the importance of victory. “We’re going to win at every level,” he told a crowd in Albany. “We’re going to win so much, you may even get tired of winning.”
In January, 2018, Facebook announced that it was changing the algorithm it used to determine which posts users see in their News Feed. Ostensibly, the change was designed to promote “meaningful interactions between people.” After the 2016 campaign, the company had been heavily criticized for helping to spread disinformation, much of it originating from fake, Russian-backed accounts. The new algorithm was supposed to encourage “back-and-forth discussion” by boosting content that elicited emotional reactions.
The new system, by most accounts, proved even worse than the old. As perhaps should have been anticipated, the posts that tended to prompt the most reaction were the most politically provocative. The new algorithm thus produced a kind of vicious, or furious, cycle: the more outrage a post inspired, the more it was promoted, and so on.
How much has the rise of social media contributed to the spread of hyperpartisanship? Quite a bit, argues Chris Bail, a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University and the author of “Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing” (Princeton). Use of social media, Bail writes, “pushes people further apart.”
The standard explanation for this is the so-called echo-chamber effect. On Facebook, people “friend” people with similar views—either their genuine friends or celebrities and other public figures they admire. Trump supporters tend to hear from other Trump supporters, and Trump haters from other Trump haters. A study by researchers inside Facebook showed that only about a quarter of the news content that Democrats post on the platform is viewed by Republicans, and vice versa. A study of Twitter use found similar patterns. Meanwhile, myriad studies, many dating back to before the Internet was ever dreamed of, have demonstrated that, when people confer with others who agree with them, their views become more extreme. Social scientists have dubbed this effect “group polarization,” and many worry that the Web has devolved into one vast group-polarization palooza.
“It seems plain that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding ground for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are connecting with greater ease and frequency with one another, and often without hearing contrary views,” Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School, writes in “#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.”
Bail, who directs Duke’s Polarization Lab, disagrees with the standard account, at least in part. Social media, he allows, does encourage political extremists to become more extreme; the more outrageous the content they post, the more likes and new followers they attract, and the more status they acquire. For this group, Bail writes, “social media enables a kind of microcelebrity.”
But the bulk of Facebook and Twitter users are more centrist. They aren’t particularly interested in the latest partisan wrangle. For these users, “posting online about politics simply carries more risk than it’s worth,” Bail argues. By absenting themselves from online political discussions, moderates allow the extremists to dominate, and this, Bail says, promotes a “profound form of distortion.” Extrapolating from the arguments they encounter, social-media users on either side conclude that those on the other are more extreme than they actually are. This phenomenon has become known as false polarization. “Social media has sent false polarization into hyperdrive,” Bail observes.
My grandfather, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was all too aware of the hazards of us-versus-them thinking. And yet, upon arriving in New York, midway through F.D.R.’s second term, he became a passionate partisan. He often invoked Philipp Scheidemann, who served as Germany’s Chancellor at the close of the First World War, and then, in 1919, resigned in protest over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The hand that signed the treaty, Scheidemann declared, should wither away. Around Election Day, my grandfather liked to say that any hand that pulled the lever for a Republican should suffer a similar fate.
My mother inherited my grandfather’s politics and passed them down to me. For several years during the George W. Bush Administration, I drove around with a bumper sticker that read “Republicans for Voldemort.” I thought the bumper sticker was funny. Eventually, though, I had to remove it, because too many people in town took it as a sign of support for the G.O.P.
Several recent books on polarization argue that if, as a nation, we are to overcome the problem, we have to start with ourselves. “The first step is for citizens to recognize their own impairments,” Taylor Dotson, a professor of social science at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, writes in “The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy” (M.I.T.). In “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization” (Columbia), Peter T. Coleman, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia, counsels, “Think and reflect critically on your own thinking.”
“We need to work on ourselves,” Robert B. Talisse, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt, urges in “Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side” (Oxford). “We need to find ways to manage belief polarization within ourselves and our alliances.”
The trouble with the partisan-heal-thyself approach, at least as this partisan sees it, is twofold. First, those who have done the most to polarize America seem the least inclined to recognize their own “impairments.” Try to imagine Donald Trump sitting in Mar-a-Lago, munching on a Big Mac and reflecting critically on his “own thinking.”
Second, the fact that each party regards the other as a “serious threat” doesn’t mean that they are equally threatening. The January 6th attack on the Capitol, the ongoing attempts to discredit the 2020 election, the new state laws that will make it more difficult for millions of people to vote, particularly in communities of color—only one party is responsible for these. In November, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a watchdog group, added the U.S. to its list of “backsliding democracies.” Although the group’s report didn’t explicitly blame the Republicans, it came pretty close: “A historic turning point came in 2020–2021 when former President Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election results in the United States. Baseless allegations of electoral fraud and related disinformation undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process.”
As the Times columnist Ezra Klein points out, the great sorting in American politics has led to a great asymmetry. “Our political system is built around geographic units, all of which privilege sparse, rural areas over dense, urban ones,” he writes in “Why We’re Polarized” (Avid Reader). This effect is most obvious in the U.S. Senate, where each voter from Wyoming enjoys, for all intents and purposes, seventy times the clout of her counterpart from California, and it’s also clear in the Electoral College. (It’s more subtle but, according to political scientists, still significant in the House of Representatives.)